24 Jan 2015

Why Yemen’s political collapse matters

Yemen is currently without a president and a government after Shia rebels took over the capital Sana’a causing ramifications for the region and the US’s war on terror.

Houthi fighters on patrol in Sana'a, Yemen

Above: Houthi fighters on patrol in Sana’a, Yemen

Fighters from the Houthis, a Shia militant group, took control of Sana’a earlier this week, including capturing the presidential palace with President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi inside.

The Houthis insisted that they were not staging a coup – saying instead that they were trying to ensure a greater role in Yemen’s government.

However, in a surprise move – a move that appears to have caught the Houthis off guard – the government and president of Yemen then resigned.

The outcome: Yemen is stuck in a political limbo, and major players across the world are watching to see what happens next.

Living on the edge

It would be easy to call what is happening in Yemen a crisis – but the people of Yemen have been facing a constant crisis for a very long time.

Yemen is one of the the poorest countries in the Middle East, with the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA estimating that 16m Yemenis, in a country of around 24m, need aid. It is 154th out of 187 countries worldwide in the UN’s human development index.

More than 10m people in Yemen do not have enough to eat and over a third of the population lives in poverty.

A girl outside her home, made of cardboard and wood, in the slums of Aden, southern Yemen

Above: a girl outside her home, made of cardboard and wood, in the slums of Aden, southern Yemen

Grace Ommer, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, said on Friday that the political crisis threatens to overshadow the needs of millions of people.

“Without more sustained commitment to help these vulnerable people, they will continue to face disaster and their stories will continue to be lost amid the complex political and security context,” she said.

Fighting terror

Alongside poverty there is violence. Yemen is a stage on which the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam are played out in violent exchanges.

In September al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s branch in Yemen launched a series of car bomb and suicide attacks against Houthis, and the group has stated that it is intending to “expand the geographical area” of its attacks against Houthis.

In Sana’a on Friday Houthi fighters, aligned to a branch of Shia Islam, have established a series of checkpoints and it has been reported that the fighters are searching for al-Qaeda members, aligned to Sunni Islam, trying to smuggle bombs into the city.

And it is this religious battle that makes Yemen’s state of affairs a concern to a number of international powers.

The US has made very little comment about what is happening in Yemen – but it will be watching closely. President Hadi was a good friend to the US, allowing them total access to the country’s airspace as it fought it’s “war on terror” against al-Qaeda.

Graffiti on a wall in the Yemeni capital Sana'a

Above: graffiti on a wall in the Yemeni capital Sana’a

During Hadi’s tenure there have been dozens of US drone strikes against al-Qaeda in Yemen (though it was not always al-Qaeda fighters who were killed – according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism up to 83 civilians including seven children have been killed in confirmed US drone strikes in Yemen between 2002 and 2015. Last year up to nine civilians, including one child, were killed in such strikes).

The US government has said relatively little on the political turmoil until a statement released last night that read: “The United States is troubled by reports of President Hadi and his cabinet’s resignation.

“At this time, it is critical that all sides avoid violence. The safety and security of US personnel is our top priority in Yemen.

“We are evaluating the security situation on the ground on an ongoing basis. We call on all parties to abide by their public commitments to ensure the security of the diplomatic community, including our personnel.”

Adam Baron, a Yemen expert and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “In my opinion, the US is reticent to take action or comment because they’ve been taken by surprise and are unsure what’s going on. Their entire Yemen policy may very well have collapsed yesterday.”

Failed state?

Another friend of the resigned Yemeni government was Sunni Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, which competes for Middle Eastern influence with the Shia leadership in Iran, will be alarmed by the possibility of a Shia takeover to its southern border.

The country, whose king died on Thursday, gives financial and energy support to Yemen. Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, told CNN on Wednesday that without Saudi support, “Yemen will become a failed state.”

Sir Richard Dalton, an associate fellow at Chatham House and a former senior British diplomat in the Middle East, told Channel 4 News that the Saudis will be “paying off people they think can take a stand against the Houthis”.

“But ultimately they will have to put up with a situation they cannot control,” he said.

Houthi followers show their support to the group in a march in Sana'a

Above: Houthi followers show their support to the group in a march in Sana’a

An unlikely ally of the Houthis is former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who the Houthis helped remove from power in the Arab Spring protests of 2011. However, it has been speculated his recent links to the group could see him make a return to power.

The Yemeni parliament is scheduled to meet on Sunday to discuss Hadi’s resignation, and can accept or reject it.

Responding to the situation, the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement: “In these uncertain times in the country, the secretary-general calls on all sides to exercise maximum restraint and maintain peace and stability.”

And for the meantime, it seems, Yemen’s powerful stakeholders will have to wait and see how that uncertainty plays out.